Interview: Making Thoughts Move
By Emily Penick, Musical Theater Fellow
March 5, 2019
A Strange Loop simultaneously takes place in many locations and just one—the action may span boroughs and states, but many of the circumstances are the creations of Usher’s kinetic and singular mind. How has this theatrical device grown, and how are these thoughts brought to life? Writer Michael R. Jackson and choreographer Raja Feather Kelly discuss this bold new musical’s development and the movement inspired by the show’s principal character and sextet of black, queer performers who embody and embolden Usher’s frantic, incessant “Thoughts.”
Michael R. Jackson and Raja Feather Kelly
EMILY PENICK: This piece, like any musical, has had an extensive development process. Several years of workshop and collaboration have led to this production. If you would, please share a few thoughts about how the piece has evolved over the development process.
MICHAEL R. JACKSON: Perhaps the biggest evolution in the piece over its development has been the opening number, which frames the entire show. For many years the opening number had been about capturing the frenzy of Usher dealing with patrons at the theater where he works. That frenzy very much kept us in the environment of the theater, which led the way to the end of the show and Usher’s discovery about himself. The opening number is now more explicitly set in Usher’s mind as he tries to figure out how to write/ rewrite his musical A Strange Loop, which also leads to the way the end of the show reveals Usher’s discovery about himself.
RAJA FEATHER KELLY: As a choreographer, I often enter the process at the moment it goes from the page to a stage (even if that’s a staged reading). It seems like a precious and loaded time when you want to make sure you understand a long-time-coming vision of the writer and a long-term relationship with its director. You want to be the right fit, the best interpreter for the job, like a nanny for seven coming-of-age children.
EP: What does this story reveal on stage that is new or different?
MRJ: A Strange Loop examines the idea of black, queer male identity and experience from a pricklier and more critical point of view than one might expect or be used to.
RFK: I imagine the work hopes to reveal something more nuanced and also more universal than what people are used to. Something more frightening and more revealing.
EP: How does this story move, both literally in terms of choreography, and structurally, in terms of storytelling?
RFK: It moves with attitude, reverence, humility, and camp — structurally, choreographically and storytelling are the same. They all operate to move the story forward. To reveal and reflect its subject and its voyeurs.
MRJ: Structurally, the story moves at the speed of thought. But as Usher probes deeper into the mystery of what makes him Usher, the piece creates more corridors for him to run down; kind of like the kind you see when two or more mirrors face each other.
EP: How do you hope the audience feels as they leave the theater after seeing A Strange Loop?
MRJ: I hope the audience leaves excitedly and fearfully contemplating the beautiful complexity of the self in general and the black and/or queer self in particular. I hope they see themselves seeing a black queer man seeing himself see himself and that they feel humbled by the universality of that.
RFK: I hope they never look at a queer black body or person the same way again.